As Jake Kuhner begins his second season as football coach at Whitehall-Yearling High School, he hopes a return to more familiar surroundings will help his team improve on last year's 3-7 record.
Because of an extensive renovation project at the school, the Rams played all their games on the road and practiced at city-operated John A. Bishop Memorial Park, which is a little more than a mile from the school. Now the renovation project is nearly complete and the Rams are looking forward to returning home.
"It's nice to be back. It's nice to have our equipment here," said Kuhner, whose team will open at Division I Central Crossing on Friday, Aug. 30. "It's nice to walk out to the game field. Walk out to the practice field. The stadium looks awesome and it's nice having the kids look at it. The kids are really excited to be back at home."
The stadium project included upgrades to the bleachers and press box, a new track surface and extensive work on the field.
The Rams will unveil their new-look stadium when they play host to Bloom-Carroll on Sept. 6.
The offense will again feature a shotgun scheme with some pistol formations added, Kuhner said.
Senior Cody Koons (6-foot-1, 185 pounds) and junior Tristen Ritchie (6-4, 185) split time at quarterback last season and both are again contending for playing time.
Senior B.J. Upchurch (5-7, 170) is expected to contribute at running back and wide receiver, with senior Shaquille Alexander (6-1, 205) at tailback.
"We have better facilities this year. We're back at home," said Alexander, who was honorable mention all-league. "We're going to try and make things happen this year."
Other wide receivers are junior Davonte Wilkins (5-10, 180) and sophomore Derrion Sanders (6-1, 170). Sanders was honorable mention all-league last season.
Seniors D.A. Sanders (6-0, 215) and Nick Wright (5-11, 245) will play tight end.
Wright, who also could see time at fullback, was second-team all-league.
"This is real nice," Wright said about the return to the high school. "Everything is brand new. We've been able to come out as a team. It's going to be a great year."
D.A. and Derrion Sanders are brothers.
Junior J.D. Hornberger (5-9, 225) will play center and will be joined on the offensive line by senior Dillon Rice (5-10, 260) and junior Jaquan Beverly (5-11, 254) at tackle and senior A.J. Drake (5-11, 190) and juniors Cameron Barker (5-11, 230) and Brandon Buchert (5-11, 230) at guard. Barker was second-team and Buchert was honorable mention all-league.
Barker will punt and Ritchie is the kicker.
The 3-4 defensive base will feature Upchurch at safety, where he earned first-team all-district in Division III and first-team all-league honors.
Beverly, Buchert and Drake are expected to lead the defensive line, with senior Khilil Tolbert (6-0, 215) and Alexander at outside linebacker. Other key linebackers should be Barker and D.A. Sanders. Barker had 45 solo tackles and assisted on 15 a year ago.
Senior Demetrius Ridgeway (6-2, 200) will play cornerback and junior Dassan Jefferson (5-10, 180) will be at strong safety.
Whitehall lost 10 players to graduation, including running back Isaiah Turner, who led the team in rushing with 932 yards. Turner was first-team all-league and second-team all-district.
"I feel like we're way ahead where we were last year at this point of the year," Kuhner said.
Whitehall, Bexley and Columbus Academy have remained in the realigned MSL-Ohio Division and will be joined by Grandview, London, Madison Plains and West Jefferson.
Granville, Licking Valley and Newark Catholic -- which shared the MSL-Ohio title last season at 6-1 -- have joined the Licking County League along with Heath and Lakewood. The Rams finished finished 2-5 in the MSL-Ohio.
"Our goal this year is to make the playoffs and win the league," said Kuhner, whose team will remain in Division III and compete in Region 9 after the OHSAA added a seventh division for the football playoffs last spring. "It would be a great time to win the league being the first time we have this league.
"Our kids are really focused on being a team this year and getting that winning attitude back to Whitehall. We've talked to them about it and they're onboard."